Driving Across the Landscapes, Wineries and Villages of the Douro Valley

Our trip to Vale do Douro was one of our most memorable in Portugal. The valley is the birthplace of port wine, attracting visitors who relish spending the night in the region’s numerous Quintas.

We spent just a day in the Douro region, exploring its stunning scenery while stopping at a few towns and a winery. If like us, you want to enjoy this region to its fullest, rent a car and get lost in its winding, mountainous roads, running along the Rio Douro.

Our Starting Route

Our trip to the region took a full day: We left from Porto at 10am and arrived back after 8pm.

We started the drive by making sure our gas tank was full as there are almost no gas stations in the Douro region. Our route to Mesão Frio - technically where the region begins - took around one hour and it led us through the lovely town of Amarante.

The small town is best known for its Roman stone bridge which crosses the calm waters of the Tamega River.

Our route after Amarante, took us through the mountains and then to the mouth of Douro River. There are three major towns in this area - none are worth stopping – but are great location references: The first is Mesão Frio, not far along the river is Peso da Régua and further east is the town of Pinhão.

As you reach Mesão Frio, you will start seeing the Douro River and as you drive, you will be welcomed to amazing views of Quintas alongside hilltops, especially closer to Pinhão.

Our drive from Mesão Frio to Pinhão, took approximately 40 minutes. But right before we reached the small town, we stopped at a striking winery. Quinta do Panascal is best known for producing Fonseca wines and during your visit you can sample some of their selections.

We sampled three of their Fonseca Ports while enjoying sweeping views of the region from their main house.

Tip: One of the reasons we chose to stop at Quinta do Panascal is because they welcome visitors into their vineyard without requiring a reservation. Other quintas in the area required us to schedule ahead of time and I did not feel like being pressed for time during our drive.

Our Remaining Route: Deciding Where to Go...

Even though Pinhão is nothing much, the small town is located right in the heart of the Douro Region. Deciding on a driving route from here depends on how long you are staying or how much more of the area you want to explore.

Originally, my intention was to drive through the heart of the Douro Valley and then head east to São João da Pesqueira. We would finish at the small town of Vila Real and head back to Porto from there.

What we could not accomplish was the eastward drive: A scenic circular route that by itself takes almost two hours to complete. Because of that, from the heart of the Douro, nearby Pinhão, we decided to cut our trip short and drive straight to Vila Real.

Tip: If you want to read my original driving route, check below on my Keep in Mind section.

The Viewpoint and a Quick Stop at Vila Real

We actually drove almost half way into our original route before deciding to return and by luck found one of the best views of our entire drive!

The viewpoint we ran into was on the side of the highway, high up in the mountains, facing the river. It is close to the Village of Ervedosa do Douro but I cannot exactly pinpoint its correct location...

After soaking the all-encompassing views of the area below, we felt that our drive through the Douro had given us a good feel for the region.

We continued on the road for almost one hour to Vila Real passing by several small villages and then across sparsely inhabited areas -The landscape through this part of the region was so isolated, that we felt at times we were in another world.

Vila Real is a small town, known for its earlier Royal presence and its grandiose palace, Casa de Mateus. After a pleasant visit, we concluded that the town is a good place to go if one has extra days in the Douro area - I would suggest spending more time exploring the heart of the Douro Valley if time in the region is short.  

Our drive back to Porto took over one hour due to the port city’s at-times dreadful traffic!           


The Wrap-Up: I did a lot of research to create our driving route and was excited to give it a try. However, as we drove across the region, I realized that I had underestimated how small and winding most of its roads are. To reach anywhere, it takes longer than one might expect since the roads are sometimes unpassable, consuming a lot of time. Even though we did not complete our original route, we left feeling that we gained a better understanding of the Douro Valley. I am sure that no matter the route you choose to make, once you drive through the region, you will leave it wishing you could have spent many more days!         

The Extended Route: When you arrive near the town of Pinhão, bypass it by taking the N222 towards the small village of São João da Pesqueira. Continue driving until you reach the Miradouro de São Salvador do Mundo, a viewpoint right off the highway providing views of the valley below. From here, continue towards a water reservoir called Barragem da Valeira, a dam constructed to tame the river in 1976. After crossing it, you will reach the north shore of the Douro. Zigzagging up the hill towards the small town of Linhares, continue across vineyards as you pass by the villages of Tua and Alijo. This “extended” drive supposedly would give a good sample of the typical scenery and traditional villages of the Douro Valley. Additionally, there are several other routes that extend eastwards into the region, almost to the border with Spain.

- Want to see the full trip and plan your next? Check out our Portugal Two Week Itinerary!